Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

Scribbled on the wind

(Warning: narrative discussed in explicit detail)

Film starts with pedal literally to the metal: Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) hurtling across town past oil fields, sucking from a bottle as he swings his roadster round a sharp curve to roar up the Hadley Estate driveway.

As the Four Aces croon on the soundtrack we see the words 'Rock Hudson' fade onto the screen, right next to-- Rock Hudson. The words 'Lauren Bacall' appear as Bacall struggles to get up from bed (A hangover? A bad trip?); Stack climbs out of his car, pauses in mid-stagger to smash his bottle against the Hadley mansion ('Robert Stack'); Dorothy Malone poses perfectly framed by a window ('Dorothy Malone'). Sirk directed Bertolt Brecht's plays on the German stage; wonder if anyone has ever had as much fun applying Brecht to a film's opening credits.

Hudson as Mitch Wayne is interesting not so much for what he actually plays-- the self-conscious outsider who cautiously picks his way through a wealthy family's psychic minefield-- as for what he represents in Sirk's Hollywood melodramas: the impeccably manicured, deliberately poised, impossibly handsome leading man who incarnates all the good and honorable in the world, so manicured and poised and handsome you can't help but suspect something false about him. There isn't, not really (well in Magnificent Obsession he has to cultivate that sense of honor, through years of hard study in med school), but suspicion lingers long after the credits have rolled, stirring this (Brechtian?) unease in you as you watch him on the big screen. 

Stack-- if all you know of him is his deadpan bassvoiced Eliot Ness in The Untouchables you're in for a surprise; here he's a sniggering alcoholic, the only thing deadpan about him being his eyes-- intense pinpricks that seem oddly uninvolved, as if calculating the effect he's having based on your reactions; since you're not really there-- just an unblinking impassive camera lens-- he's lost, foundering.

Stack's Kyle Hadley is himself full of surprises; otherwise he wouldn't have charmed Lucy (Bacall) into flying with him to Miami, later walk with him down the aisle. He confides his insecurities, arousing Lucy's mother instincts (Bacall's finest work in this film involves convincing us that she would really fall for Kyle's advances); Lucy in turn arouses Mitch, but never so much that he dares trespass. The Hadleys have given Mitch so much: not just a corporate position but the love Kyle desperately seeks, from Kyle's father Jasper (Robert Keith). Jasper and Mitch have the warmest most relaxed relationship onscreen by far, rivaled only by Mitch's easy relationship with his biological father Hoak (Harry Shannon). Unspoken: Mitch is most himself with older men because they see him for the overgrown eager to please kid that he is. 

That's the sane side of the cast, subtly conceived for maximum contrast when the devil isn't onstage. Kyle in contrast to Mitch is a tightly wound knot of tension: he loves Lucy but is jealous of Mitch's understated admiration, loves his father but is jealous of Mitch's effortless affection; loves his sister but but but

If we had to hang a Brechtian placard saying 'PIECE OF WORK' on the neck of any character in this psycho drama it has to be Marylee Hadley's. She's a raging nymphomaniac, never directly addressed as such (the strongest term applied to her is the rather quaint 'tramp') but suggested in how she's framed and lit and played, in a firebreathing performance by Dorothy Malone. 

Marylee loves Mitch, never forgives Kyle for taking him away from her. Unspoken: Kyle loves Marylee too-- he wouldn't be so hot and bothered otherwise, every time she goes out with a guy. Even less remarked upon is how Kyle feels about Marylee's obsession with Mitch-- is Kyle jealous of Mitch? Of Marylee? Of both? Marylee throws herself at Mitch time and time again and he cooly rebuffs her ("I think of her as my sister," Hudson stolidly proclaims; out in the dark, raised eyebrows rise even higher); Kyle throws himself at Marylee, but mostly with the loudly professed intention of 'protecting' her. 

We never see Kyle throw himself at Mitch-- at least not early on-- and one wonders why (one does today; one can only wonder what audiences in the '50s wondered); only later does Mitch throw himself at Kyle, with the loudly professed intent of safeguarding Lucy. This has the most unsettling effect of all-- Kyle once Mitch tosses him out of Lucy's room (all the tossing in this picture!) runs down the stairs across the hall out the door across town to huddle in the nearest cheap dive he can find, guzzling corn whiskey. Bartender: "If I were one of the richest men in the world I'd be over at the country club, drinking bonded bourbon." "I like bootlegged corn better," Kyle replies. "It's full of memories." Memories of what? Kyle and Mitch and Marylee, kay aye ess ess eye en gee. No wonder Kyle trembles so; no wonder he flees after Mitch lays hands on him.  

Sirk is no Vincente Minnelli, tackling themes with absolute conviction. None of his actors crack a smile or break character but he somehow manages to keep them at arm's length through long and medium shots (Closeups are reserved mostly for visual gags ('Rock Hudson') or cleverly canted angles (directors of the '66 Batman TV series and of the Hammer horror films must surely have reviewed this beforehand) or heavily shadowed shots (Malone at the window)). When Kyle in a fit of self-loathing throws himself out of the house and across town, it's in a series of left-to-right pans seamlessly assembled-- as if Sirk watching Ophuls or Mizoguchi had said to himself "I can do that if not better" and proceeds to do so, not with elaborate camerawork but with brief and varied footage (by Russell Metty who would later shoot Touch of Evil) cut together to look as if it were elaborate camerawork. 

Double double toil and trouble; surround with Sirk's sangfroid and you have compelling cinema. Sirk brings matters to a boil with a climactic inquest/murder trial, concludes the hearing with Marylee's black cauldron lid of a hat slowly shutting on all that simmering juice. End on the obligatory happy note of Mitch driving off with Lucy in Kyle's roadster, only beforehand we have the jawdropping image of Marylee dressed and coiffed to look like Jasper Hadley in drag, sitting disconsolate at Jasper's desk with Jasper's oil derrick in one hand (Jasper in a giant portrait gazing approvingly down at her). If Marylee can't rape Mitch, Sirk seems to be telling us, she can rape the American economy instead. Which when you think about it is capitalism in a nutshell.   


jim32 said...

Best acting i have ever seen out of Malone and Bacall.

Noel Vera said...

Bacall...I did think she was sexier in The Big Sleep